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An Introduction to Equality of Opportunity

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Freedom and equality are foundational values that we draw upon when envisioning a better society. Equality of opportunity is a social ideal that combines concern with freedom and equality, and this social ideal provides a vision of how we ought to live together.

At first glance, the value of equality can seem to demand uniformity that seems dystopian. For instance, if everyone were forced to wear the same clothes, pursue the same hobbies and have the same number of children, we would think this was intolerable. However, we should be careful not to reject equality entirely on this basis. Equality is still attractive if we limit its scope to some areas. For instance, equality before the law and equal rights to vote seem to be at the heart of our convictions about how we should live together. Inequality in these areas seems as intolerable as sameness in dress, family size or in our choice of recreational activities.

Freedom or opportunity may explain where and when equality seems most important. Our equal rights to a fair trial, to vote in elections, to association, speech and religion are each an equal right to a sphere of freedom. Part of what we value in this mixture is the protection from interference and having others dictate our lives to us and the other part of what we value is that we enjoy this protection on equal terms. In the sphere of religious worship, for example, individuals decide what religion they will worship. Unequal freedom, where some have freedom of religion and others do not, strikes us as wrong because it is unequal. Whereas Equal Unfreedom, where we are all slaves or lack basic rights, strikes us as wrong because it is unfree. A combination of freedom and equality, then, promises to describe a fitting social ideal for people who disagree about important, religious, moral and political questions, and yet want to live together in mutual respect.

Equality of Opportunity is one such combination and it has been a rich source of academic and political debate, a political slogan, and a widely held conviction about how human beings should live together. At its most basic, Equality of Opportunity requires that all human beings are equal in the sphere of opportunity. Equality of opportunity is usually opposed to slavery, hierarchy and caste society, where social positions, life prospects and individual freedoms are determined by membership of some group that you are born into, such as the aristocracy. Our acknowledgement of the importance of freedom and equality motivate the theory and practice of Equality of Opportunity. But before we go any further we should ask, “What is Equality of Opportunity?”

What is Equality of Opportunity?

When we ask what equality of opportunity is we could be asking two questions. First, we could be asking about the concept of equality of opportunity. If so, we are asking for the idea in its most general form. We are asking what kind of features must a statement have to count as a statement of equality of opportunity rather than a statement of something else. Second, we could be asking for the correct conception of equality of opportunity. The term 'conception' refers to a specific interpretation of a notion or idea. It is a particular way of understanding the kind of equality and the kinds of opportunities that are most valuable or more important. While there is only one concept of equality of opportunity, there are many different conceptions.

The concept of Equality of Opportunity has been examined by philosopher Peter Westen. Westen shows that an opportunity is a three-way relationship between a person, some obstacles, and a desired goal. However, a person only has an opportunity if she has a chance of achieving that goal. One cannot have an opportunity if one faces insurmountable obstacles that make it impossible to secure the goal. For instance, one cannot have an opportunity to become the president of the United States if one is not a natural born citizen. Many people, therefore, have no opportunity to become president of the United States. A person can have an opportunity even in the face of many, quite serious, obstacles. So, a natural born US citizen has the opportunity to become president, but she faces serious obstacles, such as accruing the relevant number and distribution of votes, as well as winning primaries. So, to have an opportunity means to face no insurmountable obstacles with respect to some important or desired goal, but what about having an equal opportunity?

In order for opportunities to be equal within a group, each member of that group must face the same relevant obstacles, none insurmountable, with respect to achieving the same desirable goal. In our example, all natural born citizens of the US have an equal opportunity when irrelevant goals, such as race, gender and religious affiliation are removed and when relevant obstacles, such as being democratically elected, remain.

Some critics have doubted the importance of mentioning equality when thinking about opportunities within a group. They argue that the only equality here is universalism, meaning that the opportunity is had by all. We can see why one might be drawn to the idea that equality plays little role in this ideal since we could say that everyone should have an opportunity to become president and this seems to do the job as well as saying that everyone should have an equal opportunity to become president. Equality appears to be doing no work, and this may lead us to question whether this expresses the value of equality.

However, this analysis misses something of significance, which is the fact that all people should have the same opportunity, and not merely an opportunity. While everyone could have an opportunity, and each face different irrelevant and relevant obstacles, equality of opportunity requires that no one face any irrelevant obstacles. If women were prohibited from becoming president, or if they had to win a greater proportion of the votes to be elected than men, then they would face an irrelevant obstacle that men do not. Thus, men and women would not enjoy equal opportunity with respect to the good of political representation in this society. This aspect of equality of opportunity is important for a social ideal because it expresses part of the moral value of equality.

At this point we do well to contrast equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity requires only that people be free from certain obstacles to pursue their own happiness and success. As such, Equality of Opportunity is not opposed to different outcomes of the conscientious, but fair pursuit of jobs, health, wealth, education and other goods that people value, so long as everyone faces the same obstacles. Sometimes this idea is known as the level-playing field because its main concern is that no one is unfairly advantaged before they even start out. It is in stark opposition to games that are rigged in favor of some over others. By contrast, Equality of Outcome insists that everyone do equally well with respect to some of the goods that individuals value, regardless of their effort, talents, and whether they wish to pursue it. This sort of equality can seem undesirable, but it can also be understood as one that is impossible to achieve because people are unequal in so many of the respects that affect outcomes, such as natural talent, health, their attitudes to hard work and in their interests and preferences. This can lead us to favor equal opportunities and to allow the inequality of outcomes. However, we should note that equal outcomes may still be very important indicators of inequality of opportunity, and that equal outcomes may be appropriate for children and others who lack responsible agency.

The bare concept of Equality of Opportunity as a relation between agents, obstacles and goals, leaves a lot to be filled out. There are many different ways in which we could all face the same obstacles with respect to the same goals. By varying the different goals and obstacles we vary the conception of Equality of Opportunity and different views will offer different guidance, and some will be more attractive than others. Different goals can make a difference in the following way. Opportunity for undesirable or irrelevant goals, such as opportunities to be mugged or to count grass, will not be included. Some goals may be trivial and it may not matter whether people have different opportunities with respect to those goals. For instance, opportunities to tie your shoe laces or grow a tree in your garden are less important than opportunities to find meaningful work or get a good education. We will have to think hard about exactly which ones do matter and which do not. In addition, we must think carefully about the kinds of obstacles that are morally relevant and the ones that are morally irrelevant with respect to the goal. For instance, we might think that race, religion and sexuality should not affect one’s opportunities to go to college, but that hard-work and ability to learn should. As such, ability to learn would be an obstacle that is relevant to the distribution of opportunity to go to college, but sexuality, religion and race would not. Which obstacles are morally relevant will depend on a more substantive account of what matters morally in each case. Different accounts of what are relevant and what goals matter are offered by rival conceptions of equality of opportunity.

Conceptions of Equality of Opportunity can be more or less demanding. The obstacles may be more or less difficult to overcome or the goals may be more or less difficult to achieve. For instance, if we think that obstacles such as social class, in addition to race, gender, sexuality and religious belief, are irrelevant to the goal that is desired, then we will have to try much harder to minimize differences in social class or minimize the effect social class has on the distribution of these goods. We could also specify the nature of the obstacle in different ways, such as formal or legal racial discrimination rather than explicit or implicit bias. The view can also be more or less demanding in terms of the goals we specify. So, for instance, we might think that everyone should have an equal opportunity to reach a basic standard of living or that everyone should have an equal opportunity to reach a high or equal standard of living. These views would support different policies and may require much more of our institutions, and greater individual effort, than others. They may also reflect the values of individual freedom and equal respect better or worse.

We will now briefly focus on two influential conceptions of Equality of Opportunity and show how they differ in their demandingness. We then go on to explain the special relationship that conceptions of Equality of Opportunity have with education and schooling.

Different Views of Equality of Opportunity

Formal Equality of Opportunity is arguably the least demanding conception of Equality of Opportunity. It focuses on the formal rules that stand in the way of achieving particular goals, such as employment and admission to schools.  Different types of formal equality of opportunity can focus on many or few goals. What unites these views is a focus on formal discriminatory rules as an irrelevant obstacle to some role. Policies that are related to this conception include requirements that advertisements for jobs do not specify racial, religious or gender characteristics. They must be perfectly general such that anyone can apply without violating the formal rule. This vision of a free and equal society can be satisfied merely by ensuring that formal rules are properly general. So long as there are no formal rules that stand in the way of some individuals’ achievement of some goal those individuals have equal opportunity. The view is therefore compatible with private discrimination, implicit bias, and unequal distributions of resources.

On the other hand, Equality of Opportunity for Welfare is perhaps the most demanding conception of Equality of Opportunity. It focuses on welfare, or how well a person’s life actually goes, and not minimal welfare but equal welfare. Individual choice is the only relevant obstacle. So, the only thing that should stand in the way of an individual’s achievement of equal welfare should be their own voluntary choices. In other words, a person should be no worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own. If a person chooses to take risks or gambles, any resulting inequality would not be problematic, but if a person is a victim of bad luck, such as a natural disaster or disability, then any resulting inequality would need to be remedied for equality of opportunity to be fully realized.

This view is highly demanding and would require a radical redistribution of wealth to both those who are less naturally talented and to those who are otherwise disadvantaged through no fault of their own, for example, through upbringing, through natural bad luck as well as social class, racism, sexism and religious discrimination. Addressing these inequalities may require investing in schooling, sports facilities and social networks as well as healthcare and assistance for the disabled and heavily regulated jobs markets.

It should be noted that the more demanding the view the greater the encroachment on some putatively valuable forms of individual freedom. For instance, in order to ensure that wealth, social background and natural luck do not act as an obstacle for the poor it may be necessary to tax the earnings of the well-off. Some will claim that this violates the entitlements of the rich to their resources, and is therefore too high a price to pay. This may lead those people to accept a less demanding conception of Equality of Opportunity. Others will claim that taxing the wealthy is an acceptable price to pay to ensure that poor people have substantively equal opportunities to secure good jobs, adequate healthcare and education and to have means to support their families and live a decent life.

There are other conceptions of Equality of Opportunity that are only moderately demanding. The two extreme views above, however, help us to see and make sense of dominant ideologies on the left and the right, and therefore historical public political disagreements. We can characterize much of contemporary political argument as being about what the best conception of Equality of Opportunity is, which partly explains why it is such an important idea to understand.

Defenders of small government and individual responsibility on the right may be drawn to something resembling the conception of Formal Equality of Opportunity because going further requires interference with individual entitlements and a bigger state. They may go further than Formal Equality of Opportunity and instead favor the Meritocratic Conception of Equality of Opportunity, which requires redistribution to ensure that hard work and talent, and not discrimination and favoritism, determine hiring practices.  Those who believe in meritocracy may consider some taxation to be a price worth paying for fairer hiring practices.

Defenders of more substantive equal chances, who care about equalizing school quality and school funding, as well as providing for health care, will be drawn to more demanding ideals that more closely approximate Equality of Opportunity for Welfare. They may be put off by the demandingness of the conception of Equality of Opportunity for Welfare, and instead favor the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity, which condemns inequalities in social background as obstacles to achieving valuable goals in life. Such a view will require redistribution to ensure that hard-working and talented individuals from the working class have the same chance of success as similarly hard-working and talented individuals from the middle and upper-classes. This kind of view may advocate increased per pupil funding for the working-class. Evaluating the appropriateness of these ideals will be determined both by how well they express our commitment to freedom and equality, and whether they lead to sacrifice of other values that we view as more or less important than that commitment.

These different conceptions of Equality of Opportunity offer us very different guidance and assessment of our societies. The contemporary USA undoubtedly satisfies some conceptions more than others. In this way, we can see that which view is the best conception of Equality of Opportunity will determine how much work we have to do to make progress and in which direction we need to go, whether that is breaking down formal barriers, eradicating nepotism and informal discrimination, or something more demanding like mitigating wealth inequality and the inequalities that follow from social class distinctions and natural disadvantages.

Applying the Ideas to Education

The focus of this project is on the application of conceptions of Equality of Opportunity to education. Though the types of policies and reforms that will be favored depend on the conception of Equality of Opportunity that is most defensible, we can say that educational institutions will have a central role to play in better realizing equality of opportunity. This is because education is valuable for a wide range of goals that we think are important, such as employment, health, wealth, welfare and citizenship. Moreover, almost all contemporary societies compel school attendance for all young children and so education can be offered to all and across many of the irrelevant obstacles, such as race, sexuality, religious affiliation, social class and natural talent. Of course, it may be that the highest gains could be had by focusing on pre-K education, or that non-educational levers would be most effective if politically feasible, but, to some extent, we have to think about what is best given the current institutional arrangements. As such, educational institutions are one lever that we can use to try to redress imbalances and inequalities and to help members of disadvantaged groups overcome those obstacles. Education, and schooling in particular, may be a much more politically feasible lever than pure redistribution or cash transfers and other more controversial public policies such as minimum wage legislation, affirmative action and further intervention in markets. Focusing on reform of educational policy, therefore, may be the best thing to focus on today. Nevertheless, reforming society through education can be an extremely difficult undertaking and background inequality and poverty can restrict even its efficacy. We should bear in mind, however, that some conceptions of equality of opportunity may be particularly inappropriate when applied to children. For instance, Equality of Opportunity for Welfare focuses on individual choices, because it emphasizes responsibility, but we don’t usually hold children responsible for the choices they make because their capacities are so under-developed. Also, Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity may seem to be ill-suited to educational institutions because educational institutions are supposed to cultivate merit. In applying conceptions of Equality of Opportunity to education, we must show an awareness of these and other concerns.

To illustrate more clearly some of the benefits and concerns of using education as a lever for achieving equality of opportunity, I want to explore one particular conception of equality of opportunity. Let’s assume that we accept the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity as determining an important part of how we should live together and hold that social class should not affect who gets jobs, but that the most meritorious candidate should get the job. Failure to address this issue would be a failure to take into account that social class should not affect job prospects.

There are broadly two types of strategy we could adopt, each of which has its own pitfalls and each of which uses educational institutions. The first strategy is to focus resources on trying to correct inequalities by providing extra schooling to those who are disadvantaged by social class. This aims to address the inequality of opportunity that is caused by institutions other than educational ones. The second strategy is to focus on attempting to correct inequalities in the social background, which may include inequality in educational opportunity and access to good schools, as well as unemployment and poverty in general.

We know that family background can greatly affect the development of capabilities and skills, and ambitions to go to college and get high-status jobs. Knowing this, and being committed to fair equality of opportunity, we could attempt to redress the issues around unequal childhoods by offering extra schooling to children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. This could either be achieved by targeting additional resources, tutoring, and extra classes at those who are poorer within the school, or it could be achieved by providing greater resources to those schools that educate a greater proportion of poorer children.

However, operating at this level treats the symptoms rather than the cause and, in the society that allows private schooling and tolerates huge wealth inequalities, additional investment in the education of poorer children can become an arms race that the government cannot win. Put simply, the better-off could always invest more and more into the education of their children and will do so because they want their children to secure places at the elite colleges and in the top professions. If rich parents invest more and more in their children’s education, the government must attempt to keep up if it is going to succeed in equalizing opportunity. As the government spends more and more to narrow the gap, education budgets, and taxation must increase, but it is very difficult to sustain ever-increasing budgets and taxation consistent with winning democratic elections. This threatens the political feasibility of such measures, though significant improvements may be made in the process.

An alternative strategy, which treats the causes of social class as an obstacle to equality of opportunity, is available. Looking to education we may wish to ensure that all schools are equally well-resourced. As we saw above, one way of doing this is to devote increasing resources to poorer schools. An alternative is to limit the resources that can be spent on private education, or to abolish elite private schooling all together, as it threatens equality of opportunity. However, such measures will likely be insufficient, even if feasible and effective. This is because parent-child interactions as innocent as reading bedtime stories can enhance child development unequally. Interfering in the family is both politically difficult to justify and may be morally suspect as it compromises the values that the family embodies and promotes.

A radical alternative is available, but it requires the eradication of social class and anything other than minimal wealth inequalities. In such a society, no one would be so much better off than others that they have more free time, resources, better housing and health care so that their children develop to a greater extent or more quickly than others. This would be to address the causes of inequality of opportunity, but it would likely be highly unpopular with the electorate and some will argue that an economy where workers are paid roughly equally for different work, will be painfully inefficient. Whether this is true cannot be proved here, but each of these strategies may be rejected on the grounds of being ineffective, infeasible or of compromising more important values, such as the value of the family or economic efficiency. Nevertheless, the first strategy appears to be the most promising and our commitment to equality of opportunity of some sort suggests that where we fall short of respecting freedom and equality in our society today, the educational institutions will be our first and most promising levers.

In addition, we need to think about the goal that we are trying to achieve within education, not only the goal that we care about for Equality of Opportunity in general, i.e. the conception that we think is correct. Disagreement about this concerns whether we should be concerned with equality of educational outcomes, equality of opportunities, or merely adequacy, and is partly motivated by the problems with meritocracy and responsibility noted above.

Different standards of education might be appropriate for different types of equality of opportunity goals. For instance, with respect to jobs, we might be very concerned that equally hard-working and naturally talented students achieve equal outcomes on standardized tests, since being the most qualified candidate usually gets you the job. However, being a good citizen perhaps is independent of how well informed you are relative to others, so long as you are well-informed about various candidates and about how to spot a bad argument. Moreover, with respect to young children, we might think that outcomes, not opportunities are best in some areas, such as basic reading skills. What we want, with respect to literacy, is not that children have equal opportunities to read, but that they actually learn to read, even if this comes at great cost. We should note that achieving equal outcomes will be differently costly for different individuals due to ranges of ability and the quickness with which children pick up certain skills. At the most extreme end of this spectrum are severe cognitive disabilities, which may render it very difficult or impossible to achieve equal outcomes. As such, a desirable view of equality of opportunity may have to answer special sorts of questions around the appropriate education for those who have severe disabilities. Whatever the correct answers, we can only make progress on these questions by thinking seriously about the issues many of which are presented here in a way that is widely accessible.

Our focus is on the application of conceptions of Equality of Opportunity to education, but there are many other goods that people value and should have equal opportunity to pursue. For instance, most people value healthcare as it is important no matter what their ambitions and life plans are. Access to good doctors and basic medical treatment could be evaluated in terms of equality of opportunity. So, if some people face greater obstacles than others in getting to see a good doctor. If basic healthcare is expensive, then poorer people will face greater obstacles than the rich. If few doctors are willing to work in rural areas, then those in rural areas will face greater obstacles than those in urban areas. These unequal obstacles may be condemnable, depending on the conception of Equality of Opportunity that is most desirable. Moreover, rather than focusing on particular goods, such as education and health, we may prefer to focus on happiness itself, since it seems to be the fundamental value that people care about. Such a focus would enable us to condemn obstacles that stand in the way of health or education only insofar as those goods affect the happiness of those individuals. This makes an important difference if people wish to pursue health or education to different extents. One person’s happiness may hinge on her access to education far more than another’s persons. We can say the same about health.

The intention of this brief introduction to equality of opportunity and education was to introduce beginners to the ideal of equality of opportunity, its place within contemporary political debates and its history. At this stage we might ask: why should anyone care about equality of opportunity? This takes us back to the start of the introduction. If you believe that all of us are equal in some important ways and if you think that freedom to pursue one’s plans without interference from others is important, then equality of opportunity is very important indeed.

Arguing about equality of opportunity is really an argument about how best to understand the kind of society we should be striving for, one where free and equal persons live together. Although other ideals may also be worth striving for, equality of opportunity offers important guidance and a standpoint for criticism of contemporary societies, their politicians and our own personal conduct. It enables us to judge some change as progress or backsliding. Educational institutions, in particular, are well situated to make those changes and failure to utilize them for this end can be judged to have been a further opportunity missed.

What can be found on this website is a summary of different academic debates about equality of opportunity and education and an annotated bibliography of some of the key books and articles on the topic. I start with a beginners reading list below, and go on to explain the crux of some key debates. The debates are divided into the following sections. The first section addresses the concept of equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The second section considers different conceptions of equality of opportunity and debates about their relative merits. The third section covers debates about education and educational policy, including: school choice and the family, higher education, and whether adequacy or equality should be the principle for distributing educational resources and the aim of schooling.


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